Nissan's latest compact crossover, the modishly-monikered Juke, may share its hip handle with swinging Juke Joints and tunes-for-hire Jukeboxes but manages to strike a unique note in a vehicle segment with an already extensive play list.
The crossover segment, expanding like a newly created universe in the automotive cosmos, is primarily populated with a veritable Milky Way's worth of sensible vehicles whose mainstream themes strike a responsive chord with family-oriented buyers. However, the Juke's jive is aimed at enticing younger and hipper buyers to shake their booty on the crossover dance floor.
Most family-value-seeking customers will walk right by the Juke in Nissan showrooms, babes in arms or in tow, with perhaps a rather wistful over-the-shoulder glance at its kind of funky European-designed styling on their way to the larger, more practical and conventional Rogue.
Still bright eyed, optimistic and unencumbered younger shoppers though will quicken their pace past the silly-looking Cube and dismiss the Versa sedan and hatch as boring while bee-lining for the hotter versions of the Sentra. It's mostly this group who are likely to be sideswiped by the Juke, which offers what many will consider pretty cool looks, decent performance and handling and at least a facsimile of the Rogue's lifestyle flexibility.
A mini-crossover was first tried by Suzuki, which pitched its almost identically sized SX4 in this category when in reality it's more a tall compact hatch than a pretend SUV.
Nissan's Juke is similarly hard to pigeonhole, which may be why it was entered in the Automobile Journalists of Canada Car of The Year competition last fall in the Small Car category - which it didn't win, incidentally. Maybe the journos were confused, too. Nissan's PR writers happily call it a BUSC or Bold Urban Sport Cross vehicle.
The Juke is available in front- and all-wheel-drive models starting with the front-drive SV at $19,998; this review is based on the front-wheel-drive SL priced at $23,584. The test unit was spiffed up with leather, navigation, rear-view monitor and Rockford Fosgate audio system and priced out at $27,708.
The nominally, but not practically, five-seat Juke is built on the Versa platform and gives new meaning to the word compact when related to CUVs. It is 530 mm shorter than the Rogue, which itself isn't exactly a giant among compact class crossovers. And despite its bulgy haunches doesn't have much upper body broadness, so cargo capacity is just 1,019 litres (with front drivers gaining a bit more in under rear floor storage) compared to the Rogue's far-from-class-leading 1,643 litres. The SX4's cargo bay holds 1,465 litres.
But if the Juke comes up a little short in terms of crossover-style practicality it comes up aces when it comes to, well, style, with a look that had a hatchback full of young heads swivelling for a better look as it crept by on the highway. And it turns out to be a pretty decent driving device, too.
All Jukes are powered by a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine with its potency puffed up by a turbocharger to produce 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque (more of both than the Rogue). In the tester this rotated the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox - with quick, light and neat shifter - but a continuously variable transmission is available.
Wring this feisty little motor out hard in each gear and it will haul the Juke's not inconsiderable 1,342 kg of heft to 100 km/h in 8.5 seconds, which isn't slow. And with six gears to choose from, you can always pick one to suit the situation, whether it's around-town ducking and diving driving or hauling along the highway, where the turbo-torque lets you stay in top gear on most hilly bits.
And its fuel economy ratings are good too, at 8.3 litres/100 km city and 6.3 highway. A week of mostly rural use combined with four-lane highway cruising resulted in an average consumption readout of 9.6 litres/100 km.
AWD versions get an independent rear suspension but front-drivers a good old twist-beam rear axle, but allied to responsive steering this produces handling that doesn't quite make an outright lie of Nissan's sporty pitch.
There's more than enough room up front in the Juke and the driver sits on a reasonably supportive seat, grasping a firm-feeling, leather-wrapped wheel through which can be seen a pair of large instruments. Over on the centreline a stack with navi and info screen, audio and climate controls (the latter also on the wheel) hangs over a smoothly formed - inspired by a motorcycle gas tank - centre console topped by the gearshift. Not as daring inside as out, but it looks neat, is functional and proves comfortable with the climate control system working well and noise levels low enough to allow you to enjoy the optional audio system.
In practical terms, opting for a compact hatch or a "proper" CUV might make more sense than a Juke, but might not be as much fun.
2011 Nissan Juke SL
Type: Compact crossover
Base price: $23,548; as tested, $27,708
Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 188 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.3 city/6.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Mazda5, Kia Rondo, Mini Countryman, Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mitsubishi RVR
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